It’s a great time to be alive if you died in the last millennia. The Broadway smash Hamilton has reinvigorated interest in the American founding fathers, Drunk History is an entertaining crash course in the past, and now Great Minds with Dan Harmon is here to transport historical figures into our time and see how long they can tolerate the 21st Century, their Wikipedia page and the company of Harmon.
Creator of Community and Rick and Morty, Harmon, and his assistant, Spencer Crittenden (from the cult podcast, Harmontown), use a time/cloning machine to create historical figures. Once here, Harmon has only a few hours to interview them before they collapse into dust. Great Minds is like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure but with more cellular degradation. The lineup for season one features visits from: Ludwig van Beethoven (Jack Black), Ernest Hemmingway (Scott Adsit), Thomas Edison (Jason Sudeikis) Mary Wollstonecraft (Aubrey Plaza) and Amelia Earhart (Kristen Schaal).
Nothing ever goes smoothly and in Harmon’s self-aware style (see: Community) the show is always commenting on how it’s wasting time with mega famous people. Harmon takes Beethoven to a bar where the composer is disappointed by hearing his own music. Hemmingway’s hyper masculinity intimidates Harmon so he tries to suggest they do the manliest activity he can think of: paintball. The Edison episode features the duo in a recording studio trying to better the sound quality of recordings from his invention, the phonograph, but Edison gets distracted by the freedom of digital recording technology.
Great Minds delights in finding odd ways to freak out the historical figures while they get used to modern times. Edison takes great offense to finding out the electric car he’s riding in, a Tesla, is named after his rival Nikola Tesla. A lot of the show’s humor comes from the way each historical figures’ impact still echoes in 2016 yet they get hung up on the strangest parts of modern life. Harmon tries hard to impress Wollstonecraft, who would much rather sieze the day, but they end up bonding over bubble wrap. The oddities at play are brilliant.
Each episode has a no frills quality but there are serious smarts packed in the punchy run-time (10 minutes). In a roundabout way, each setup provides witty insights into the lives of the historical figures featured while marveling at their achievements with the knowledge they’ll soon be reduced to dust. Yes, Great Minds combines educational humour with light pathos for our own mortality; it’s like a fun-size candy bar of knowledge.
Each historical figure is cast to perfection with most having an uncanny resemblance to the real person they’re playing. Future epsiodes feature Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch as William Shakespeare, Nick Kroll as Sigmund Freud, Sarah Silverman as Besty Ross and Dana Carvey as John F. Kennedy.
Prevailing above all is the comedic pairing of Harmon and Crittenden. Harmon is self-depreciating playing an egotistical version of himself while Crittenden is a dry comic foil whose monotone delivery balances out Harmon’s wild energy. As each situation spirals out of control they counterbalance the absurdity well.
Great Minds is the perfect show for a chuckle mixed with a little knowledge that could aid you in winning a trivia night. What a time to be alive.
Watch Great Minds with Dan Harmon on SBS On Demand: